Figs – summer’s sweet and sticky end.

Follow the late summer sun shining on wasps’ wings – they could lead you to sweet treats.  Grapes.  The last of the summer berries, and autumn raspberries.  Pears and apples ripe on the tree.   And if you’re lucky enough in your geography – figs!!

Simply delicious

When I was a girl, figs came only dried, and only at Christmas.  So when did my sensual entrancement with the ripe, fresh fruit start?

It could have been all in my mind, in the beginning.

I remember reading something wonderfully erotically suggestive about eating figs, splitting the skin and sinking your mouth into the honeyed, slightly sticky sweetness.  Was it D  H Lawrence?  I can’t find the passage, searching in my usual places.   But the idea of the fig as something decadent, something opulent and voluptuous… that was in my mind, predisposing my mouth, when the real fruit came along.

A cafe “car park” outside Pula, Croatia – and Margrit succumbs to temptation – as did we all..

We’ve planted a fig tree in Kapiti now, and eaten the first fruit from that.

But the fig-feasts I remember best come from “unclaimed” trees.   There was the one along the road from Marilyn and Warren’s family bach in Wainui Inlet.

Just occasionally the timing of our visit would be right, and we could pull on branches to reach the fruit.

Then there were two trees in an unofficial car-park in Kilbirnie. Fig trees in Wellington – who would have thought it? And for a while, it seemed I was the only person who knew. Then I met someone else with a shopping bag and a large smile… and then next season, only new asphalt.

But bliss – more fig-trees than I could imagine, on the Dalmatian coast.  Our most-visited were three on our morning daily path to the ocean one holiday in Rabovic. They were dropping  their fruit on the ground. That made, we thought, for guilt-free reaching up to rescue ripe fruit from what would otherwise have been a squishy end.  Our holiday-apartment host must have noticed, and brought in a big basket of figs from his own trees – perhaps to protect his neighbours.

Between here and the water – three trees dripped fruit

The moral imperative to not leave ripe figs to the wasps and starlings continued last year in Altenrhein in Switzerland.  We were among the last residents left in our summer community. It was late October.  So what if the tree was inside someone’s boundary? It would have been so wasteful not to reach over… aaah there again that slightly illicit sense.

An optimistic young tree in Altenrhein. May the winter not be too hard this year…

Last year was a hard winter here.  The fig trees planted by the optimists who feel the Mediterranean climate moving north were cut to the ground by the cold – but – optimists themselves – are shooting again.

Dark purple-skinned figs with crimson centres, pale gold-skinned figs, green-skinned with amber centres,  small almost-black figs… all sweetness and texture.

The first fresh figs are coming into the supermarkets in Switzerland  – from Turkey.  In a couple of weeks, they’ll be dropping from the trees in Croatia.

By the time they’re ripe on the optimists’ trees here, we’ll be back watching the leaves burst out on our New Zealand tree.

For me they’re perfection just as they are…. But if you wanted to add something on the plate… creamy blue cheese and a drizzle of runny honey is pretty good.   So are walnuts or almonds – a heavier crunch to counter-point the tender bite of the fig seeds.  A little parma ham or prosciutto goes well too – with the saltiness and the sweetness duetting deliciously.    For guests, you might want to cut the figs in halves or quarters, leaving the stem end uncut so you can open them out flowerlike.  But privately, just splitting them apart from the blunt end with a gentle pull of your thumbs… ah tactile joy.

And – how can something so wonderful not be good for you!

Eat a fig and feel your blood pressure go down. It’s not just the relaxation of indulgence – it’s the high levels of potassium.  You could even feel your bones strengthening.  Dried figs contain an impressive 250mg of calcium per 100g, compared to whole milk with only 118mg.

Figs are amongst the most highly alkaline foods, making them useful in balancing the pH of the body.  They’re one of the highest fruit sources of fibre too. No wonder our collective great-grandmothers would urge “a good feed of figs is what you need”.

I didn’t know until I started reading, that fig-leaves are also good.   They’re said to lower the amount of insulin required by diabetics, and they’re a folk-remedy against ulcers.  Just chew a couple of leaves in the morning, they say.  I tried.  They’re great.  In your nose and mouth, there’s that strong perfume you get when you reach into sun-warmed branches for the fruit. There’s a slightly astringent after-taste – very pleasant.  You can make a tea too – boil the leaves for around 20 minutes – against bronchitis and asthma.

So  –  the one of the most delicious of fruits is also a health-treasure.   But I never want to think of eating a fig because it’s “good for me”.  Let’s stay with the other, richer, sensually decadent ideas a ripe fig plants in my mind.

Figs drying on the roofs in Primosten, Croatia

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Hail the Snail

When once was wonderful …. can twice be terrific?  There’s always that slight anxiety when you re-approach a mythologised experience.

For years I’ve been telling anyone who didn’t immediately go into “Ugh” mode, about the best snails I’ve ever eaten. (If you’re an “ugh-er”, you might want to go straight to the final paragraph.)

We’d gone to the Mosel Valley in Germany. It was our first time there, and after having driven the wrong way up the bus lane in the centre of the old Roman city of Trier, we decided we’d better head for the country!  We lucked into (a) a lovely little wine town called Trittenheim, (b) a convivial bed and breakfast place, and (c) a garden at the back  of a restaurant.

We drank our first bottle of Trittenheim Altarchen Riesling in the garden. It was nectar.  Then we ordered the snails.  Snails in garlic and riesling sauce.   They came shell-less, deep in sauce, in a stoneware bowl.   I’d never eaten snails like it.   They were tender.   They were succulent. And the sauce was the kind you run your finger around the bowl to make sure you’ve not missed any.    That dish of snails entered our list of legendary eats.

Could it be as good again? YES

This year, we were back, with friends.  We couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant, but when one was recommended to us and we went to look – yes!  It’s called Germania.  A small restaurant inside, a garden out, but too windy for that that night.

And yes, the owner was the same, ten years older, but so were we.  And YES the snails were still on the menu, still done the same way. And YES!!!! It is possible that something can come out of memory and into reality and be just as good again.

We won’t try to recreate it at home, for fear of disappointment, but if you want to try to approximate it, here’s my deconstruction/reconstruction of Snails in Garlic and Riesling Sauce.  

The sauce was a base of

  • chopped onions,
  • chopped garlic,
  • a small amount of finely chopped red capsicums,
  • a taste of curry powder, and
  • a small spoonful of green peppercorns

– all browned in butter, then cooked slowly with a good slosh of Riesling (halbtrocken – half-dry), and possibly some stock.  

I deduce that once the sauce was simmering slowly and getting all luscious, the snails were introduced, and left to cook gently, and towards the end, the sauce was finished with cream.

Serve with crusty rustic bread for the mopping up phase.   Play lounge music to accompany the low moans of pleasure.

Okay – you get the hedonism aspect … now my challenge is to find a healthy angle. Well, snails are fat-free.  And you only need to eat a few.  I’m struggling here…  We know they’re healthy eaters themselves, since they choose only the finest bits of your garden…  ummmm….

But first  – catch your snail.     There are two kinds here, a small gold and brown banded one which is too small to be worth the trouble, and a big grey-brown shelled one called the “Weinberg Schnecken”– the wine-hill snail.   In Switzerland, that’s the one that’s good to eat – And it’s protected!

This wine-hill snail was out for a morning crawl when we were herb gathering. I think it knew it was protected, even though we didn’t then….

We only found out they were protected when we were excitedly showing a neighbour one from our garden – a survivor, that one, we think from ten Inge gave us last year. She’d gathered them, put them in a box, and brought them to us to cook.  Well, we nurtured those snails.  Gave them only the best  lettuce leaves for several days to  clean their systems.  Encouraged them to get fat and sweet.  Then – we looked at each other and the snails, and let them go.   Every now and then we find one around the garden, and look at it fondly – and now of course also feel an undeserved pride for supporting a protected species.

When Mani was a boy, one of his neighbours farmed snails.  He had rows of wooden snail-houses, and rows of lettuces to feed the molluscs. He’s long gone.   Better to get snap-frozen ones I guess.   That’s also the tip if you do have a source of fresh ones.  Put them in the freezer for a painless death after you’ve kept them on a cleansing diet (lettuce or cornmeal are recommended) for a week or two.

In a sense, I am also farming schnecken – but the huge red slug type.    I’ve a colony of them in the compost bin.  They’re great processors of whatever I throw at them, and I rationalise that while they’re getting fed, they’re less likely to go hunting round the garden for the things I’d rather they didn’t eat.   I went to get a photo of them – but in this hot weather they’ve gone deep into the heap, so this one is harvested from the Web, thank you Bumblebee.

Besides, they may come in handy if someone has bronchitis or a nasty throat.  They’re a cure.  (See, I knew I could get to a health aspect somewhere!)  You take some roten schnecken, put them in a jar and cover them with sugar. That dissolves them.  Strain the resulting juice to get rid of any residual grit, add a slosh of schnapps, and sip by the teaspoonful.  Mani cured a friend’s nagging cough with Roten Schnecken Syrup last year, so now I cultivate a supply. Would I take it myself?  Probably not!

Remember, healthy hedonism is about enjoyment, relishing the good things …. So if the thought of anything makes your insides shrink, it doesn’t fit the philosophy!   I’m a great believer in sharing what’s on my plate; that’s what makes eating with friends such a multiple delight.   But to urge something on someone who then goes “no, I can’t” and pushes it half-eaten to the side of the plate, that is tragedy indeed.  A snail sacrificed in vain.  A morsel you can no longer with any grace reclaim.    No – you’re safe with me when I’m eating snails.

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name?  Culinary Confusion!

I was enjoying over-the-drive-neighbour Maria’s garden, and asked what she called that plant there. “Melissa” she said.  “Hmmm, I thought, adding to my vocabulary – “here the word for Bergamot is Melissa.

So she told me her mother’s recipe for Melissensirup (cordial) – and the next day bought me a bottle, and the recipe written down.

For me, it’s too sweet, even heavily diluted – but the colour is stunning.  So I’m experimenting with adding lemon juice, lime slices, mint leaves.  It’s a member of the mint family, so there’s a natural relationship there.

Most promising so far is a sliced fresh ripe peach, with sprinkling of chopped mint, the syrup drizzled over and left to marinate a while – then the whole thing drowned in dry sparkling wine.  Slurp the wine, fish the peach slices out, and celebrate the kindness of neighbours!

BUT  before you make it, and proudly tell friends and family it’s Melissa Syrup… read on!

“MelissenSirup” (note 1)  a la Maria’s mother.

 Put 1 handful of Melissa flowers with 30 grams Weinsteinsäure (note 2) in a large bowl.  Pour 1.5 litre of boiling water over, and leave overnight.   Strain, then add 2.5 kilograms of sugar (note 3), and leave to stand for 3 days.  Bottle.

  • Note 1  –  what’s in a name?  See below.
  • Note 2  –  you know the crystals that form in the bottom of wine bottles?  Those are “wine stones” and they’re ground to a powder.  You could substitute ascorbic acid (powdered vitamin C) if your local store goes “you want what???”.
  • Note 3 – I’m sure you could reduce the amount of sugar by half.

 So to the mystery of names…

The plant in Maria’s garden and her mother’s syrup really is Bergamot (Monarda Didyma) – also known as Bee Balm, Horsemint, Oswego tea.   The “real” Melissa is Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) – also a wonderful herb from the mint family.  Obviously the misnaming between the two is not just a “Maria thing”:    Wikipedia warns firmly against mixing the two up.   I’ve scratched out my mental translation note!

And – just to complete the confusion, Herb Bergamot is quite different again to the Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), which is the one that gives the fragrance to Earl Grey tea.     Herb Bergamot was named so by Dr Monardes when he wrote his 1569 Herbal Guide to the flowers of America, because its perfume reminded him of the Bergamot Orange.  In a nice turn-around, the herb’s Latin name (Monarda) is in his honour.

The essential oils of both Bergamots and of Melissa (lemon balm)  are used in aromatherapy  –  but they have quite different active ingredients.

What’s good for what?  

Well, give me lemon balm (true Melissa) any day!  If I’d only known what a treasure I used to have growing wild in one of my former gardens, I would not have been so ruthless.  Then, it was a handful of leaves to make a cooling drink – and the rest into the compost.

Now, I would rub the leaves on my skin against mosquitos (they’re not too bad here this year except at the official biting time of half an hour after sundown), and if I ever got a cold sore or shingles I’d rub them on that.

I would drink heaps of lemon balm tea, both hot and cold – and find myself calmer, and cleverer.   www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melissa_officinalis  tells you exactly why.

I’d make lemon balm pesto and serve it with fish  – and stuff a chicken with a handful of leaves.    I might even try to persuade Mani to try making Benedictine or Chartreuse Liqueur – it’s an ingredient in that.

Heidi Cardenas at http://www.herbcompanion.com/in-the-herb-garden/melissa-officinalis-growing-using-lemon-balm.aspx  has some other delightfully healthy hedonistic things to try. She says  “Fresh lemon balm works wonders in the bath as well, strewn in hot water with rose petals and lavender, or floated in a newly cleaned toilet bowl. A couple of freshly cut sprigs steeped overnight in filtered water makes a refreshing natural hair rinse after shampooing, or a lovely light toilet water sprayed on arms and legs after a shower. Steep it in filtered water and witch hazel for a facial skin toner. Lemon balm leaves make great dream pillow filling, cut fresh and stuffed into clean cheesecloth or muslin tied with silk ribbon to tuck into your pillow case before sleep. Mix them with fresh cut lavender flowers and spearmint leaves for an even more relaxing, dream-friendly sachet”..  

But – if I plant it again, it will definitely be in a large tub, like the horseradish, mint, and comfrey.  They are just too enthusiastic colonisers.

And if I grab a handful of Maria’s Bergamot, I suspect it will not be to make a sugar-heavy syrup which cannot be good for your teeth  –  but a tea, which can.  Bergamot’s the natural source of the antiseptic Thymol, the primary active ingredient in modern commercial mouthwash formulas.

So there we have it  –  three wonderful plants, mixed together in a confusion of names, and served to serve us ( and the bees).

Sage Advice

One of Mani’s old herbal books says that if you have sage in the garden, you’ll live forever.  Obviously there’s nothing new in exaggerated claims for the benefit of this and that!   However seeing the name is derived from salvere, Latin for save / salvation, maybe there’s something in it.

So sage –  yes – what a boon.  Our bush is growing magnificently this year.  We think it’s in gratitude for the extra sun now we’ve taken one elder tree away.   It’s right where we can reach it from the deck-chairs, and friends can grab some in passing.   Almost everyone but us has had nasty summer colds and ‘flu, so folk leave clutching a little bunch of good health.

There are many websites where you can research why it’s such an honoured herb –  for instance http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/sage-herb.html;   http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/s/sages-05.html.  is my favourite for its arcane collection of information.

But a quick list of why a healthy hedonist might want sage would include

  • Anti-inflammatory  (rosmarinic acid ) –  so it’s good as a poultice, smashed with a little vinegar, as well as taken internally, and wonderful for easing an inflamed throat or mouth.  If you enjoy the strong flavour, just chew it.  If not, try bruised sage leaves in a lemon and honey drink, or make sage tea.
  • Anti-oxidant – and we can’t get enough of those to keep our hedonism healthy!
  • Anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-viral  … well, just about anti-everything you don’t want
  • It’s also “pro…”  – pro concentration, helpful for memory, clarity of thought, possibly helpful against Alzheimers, and almost certainly helpful for menopause systems.

Around here, women nod sagely, and say, ah yes, very good for  “down there”,  pointing meaningfully.

Other goodies:   Vitamin A, calcium, iron and potassium. Vitamin A and calcium are both especially important for maintaining healthy teeth, bones and skin.

So – the hedonist’s inevitable question …  how best to enjoy it? 

Well, of course there’s sage and onion stuffing in a chicken.  Personally I go for the stuffing ahead of the chook, but that might be because the “roast chicken” I was  brought up with was actually an old hen past her egg-laying days!

But things my mother never thought of include:

Pan-fried fish with sage leaves – and just a handful of chips for the crunch

  • Sage leaves fried in butter until they’re crisp.  

This is absolutely brilliant with pan-fried fish.  Just dust fillets with a tiny amount of flour and pan-fry in butter.  Then while the fish is resting, turn up the heat and sizzle the sage.  A friend says it’s also very good that way with liver.  Liver was never on my must-have list until I’d had it the European way, very finely sliced and in a great sauce.   So now I may allow sage to rehabilitate liver further.

  • Sage on bruschetta

Slice a baguette or ciabatta, or whatever rustic bread makes a nice-sized serving.  Rub the cut sides with garlic, add a good slathering of olive oil and chopped sage leaves and a grind of salt and black pepper.  Into the oven till gold and crunchy.

  • Salvia Fritta – Italian-style in batter. 

This is a “surprise package” – a crunchy coat hiding a flavour-burst inside.  For a great recipe, click to http://culinariaitalia.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/fried-sage-leaves/

And to finish off …

You know that wonderful feeling when you’ve had your teeth professionally cleaned?  Do it yourself with sage leaves!  Grab a good-sized leaf.  Bruise it a little with your fingers.  Now, scrub your teeth with it  –  front, back, inside, outside, top, bottom…  While you’re shining your smile, you’re treating your gums.

After that, you’ll be looking for someone to kiss.   (But careful, did I mention sage used to be said to be good for conception?)

Enjoy!

A Cure of Cherries

A cure of cherries has to be one of our favourite healthy hedonisms.  (Look below if you’ve not met the “cure” concept yet.)

How wonderful that something that has all the virtues of looks, taste, texture, versatility and perfect packaging can be so good for you!

Clusters of sweetness on Brother Hans’ tree

 One look at the colour, and you know they’re full of anthocyanins and betacarotene (more even than blueberries) – so we’re talking antioxidant and anti-inflammatory here.  But better still, they’re one of the few foods with melatonin, that vital soothing, calming, feel-good  sleep-better substance.   And, they’re full of fibre (sometimes quite fast-acting!).  Good source of information:  http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/cherry-fruit.html.  Some sources say tart cherries are even better for you than sweet ones, but we hedonists know what tips the balance, don’t we.

So, now you have the “healthy” justification – onto the hedonism!

Simplest  –  sun-warmed off the tree and into your mouth.   Last year’s Swiss harvest on Brother Hans’ two trees  was marvellous.  Roman, Margrit, Mani and I picked and picked, on the time-honoured formula of “one for the bucket, one for the bauch (belly)”.

Last year Hans was not steady on his legs – but the branches were so heavy he could pick sitting down

If you can’t manage a sun-drenched tree, do the opposite – icy water!   We had them this way in Italy last year.  At the end of a great meal (Hotel Primavera, Godega San Urbano) I said to the waiter “just bring me fruit please”.   He bought a simple bowl of cherries floating in ice-filled water. It made the  texture sing!

There’s just one trouble with cherries in a restaurant, you can’t fool around with the stones. No playing tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor  – and no spitting contests!  Our little garden in Altenrhein is littered with  stones right now, and they disappear nicely into the river pebbles on the drive.  In Kapiti (NZ)  flowering cherries pop up all over around our place courtesy of the birds, but no such luck here, yet.

Eaten enough raw and ready for something more complicated?  I got (sister-sort-of-in-law) Inge’s cherry cake recipe from her.

4 eggs – separate them. Beat the whites and set aside.

120 gms sugar                                                                    150 gms flour

100 gms butter                                                                  ½ teaspoon baking powder

Grated rind of 1 lemon

Cream the butter & sugar, then add the egg yolks and lemon rind. Beat till light.

Add flour and baking powder.   ( You could substitute ground hazelnuts for some of the flour.)

Fold in the beaten egg white.  Put into a greased shallow round pie-tin (spring base is good).

Spread cherries over.    Top with some broken walnut pieces and sugar if you want.   Bake in a moderate oven for 20-25 minutes till a skewer comes out clean.

Serve in pie-style wedges with whipped cream alongside.

Inge said her mother used to put the cherries on the bottom, but I think from what she said, that ended up more like a upside-down dessert, all juicy on the bottom.

We’d just finished picking trays full – and Inge (left) had baked her famous cherry cake

Still more cherries to hand?   … then here’s the real decadence.  And we’re still talking healthy!   Cherry Brandy, Cherry Chocolate Liqueur, and/or Röteli.

Our first Cherry Brandy was from one of those wonderful chance encounters. We  had Feierabend (our house bus)  in a Hamner Springs motor camp.  It rained, so we thought we’d pack up and move on to the next thermal pools at Mariua. Then we noticed:  the shelter-belt we’d parked against was a wild cherry tree. The fruit were so ripe they were almost dehydrated – super-sweet and sticky.  A quick pick in the rain, and into the pot. We had no muslin bag to drain them in the bus – but we did have some spare mosquito netting for the windows – that worked!     We now had the cherry juice – so all it took was finding a town with a liquor store.  Add roughly the same quantity of brandy to your cherry juice, sweeten to taste – and voila – cherry brandy.

So – the next cherry season was Switzerland  (yes, we get to do two cherry cures a year!) and Hans’ bumper crop of 2011.    Same system – but this time Mani added some powdered chocolate as well, to make our version of the famous Swiss cherry and chocolate liqueur.

Sorting – some for juice, some for dessert, and some straight into me!

And – we’d brought some Kirsch with us from the previous year’s distilling in New Zealand  (more on that in another post, I promise)   – so he also made Röteli.   He used half kirsch (cherry spirit) and half cherry juice, and some secret spices  –  and a friend who comes from the part of Switzerland where they specialise in that, declares it to be good.

Happily, very happily, we still have some left – because this year Hans’ trees have produced very very few fruit  –  only enough to return to the simplest of cherry cures – off the tree, into the mouth, with just a few for the fridge and friends.

Ah well – there’s always summer in New Zealand to come!